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Matthews, Dukes hoping for strong start

By Tommy Keeler Jr. - tkeeler@nvdaily.com

James Madison University football coach Mickey Matthews knows how important it is for his team to get off to a fast start this season -- he just hopes his players learned from last year.

The Dukes were throttled 42-10 by North Carolina in last season's opener, and then barely got by Central Connecticut, 14-9, in their home opener. JMU hosts Saint Francis today at 6 p.m., in its season opener.

"Last year we played so poorly the first two games," Matthews said in his weekly CAA teleconference. "We played very badly at North Carolina. I'm sure they had something to do with that. But we played very poorly. We came home against Central Connecticut and we probably should've gotten beat because we played very bad. So that's the thing we've talked to our players about, is how poorly we played last year in the first two weeks. We're gonna try not to do that again."

Matthews said he's stressed to his players that it's important not to take Saint Francis lightly.

The Red Flash play in the Northeast Conference, and finished 2-9 overall last year. Their top returning running back is Kyle Harbridge, who ran for 1,430 yards last year.

Matthews said he believes Saint Francis was a better team than its record showed last season.

"They have some good guys," Matthews said. "It wasn't like they had a bad football team. They would do some things. They would turn the ball over at inopportune times, have good drives going and have a bad play. I think they're very capable."

The Dukes are also very capable. JMU has been ranked anywhere from second to eighth in many of the polls and magazine rankings. JMU has a lot back from last year's team, which lost in the second round of the playoffs to eventual national champion North Dakota State.

Matthews said the Dukes are healthy, after some minor injuries in the preseason. One of those injuries was Handley graduate Jeremiah Wilson.

Wilson, who transferred from Maryland this year, suffered a hamstring injury on the second day of preseason camp. The cornerback is one of four who are fighting for playing time for the Dukes and all four have been battling injuries in the preseason.

"We'll just see how it all kind of shakes out in terms of who's going to play," Matthews said. "I think a lot of them have played a lot in years past. We have Jeremiah, the transfer from Maryland, whose really done some good things. But he's been really bothered by a hamstring problem, too. We'll just have to see how that goes."

There's no question as to who the quarterback will be. Redshirt senior Justin Thorpe has had an up and down career at JMU, but Matthews said he is hoping this is his best one yet.

Two years ago, Thorpe suffered a season-ending knee injury in the first game of the season. Last year Thorpe threw for 1,260 yards and six touchdowns, but was suspended for five games during the middle of the season.

"Justin is a guy that no one really knows what he can do," Matthews said. "He's never been the guy for 11 games. He had an injury and had a suspension, so it remains to be seen what numbers he can put up. But I really like what I've seen in camp."

Thorpe's favorite target last year was Sherando graduate Brian Barlow. The redshirt senior caught 33 passes for 316 yards and one touchdown.

Matthews said Barlow continues to improve.

"Brian has played very well," Matthews said. "We tell the NFL guys he's a prospect as a fullback, H-back guy, because he probably doesn't have the height and weight to be the great tight end on that level. But on our level, he's really improved. He's a fifth-year player. He's a good player. We love Brian Barlow."

Matthews said he's very happy with his defense. The Dukes have six starters returning on the defensive side of the ball, plus they've added Wilson and his former Maryland teammate Titus Till, who is expected to start at linebacker.

Redshirt junior linebacker Stephon Robertson is also back and will be a key to the Dukes' defense.

"We think Stephon is the best player in the country," Matthews said. "The problem Stephon has is sometimes he's surrounded by so many good players. We led the conference in defense last year. He doesn't have to make every tackle. Sometimes he does not have the numbers some other guys do. And that sometimes hurts him on being mentioned on some of these watch lists. Stephon had a great camp."

Matthews said he feels very good about his team, but it's hard to know until you get on the field.

"I think the truest saying you can say in football is no one's ever as good as you think they are. No one's ever as bad as you think they are," Matthews said. "As we always say in Texas, we're fixin' to find out how good we are in the next few weeks."

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